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Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 129, Issue 2–3, pp 193–201 | Cite as

Human evolution and cognition

  • Ian Tattersall
Original Paper

Abstract

Human beings are distinguished from all other organisms by their symbolic way of processing information about the world. This unique cognitive style is qualitatively different from all the earlier hominid cognitive styles, and is not simply an improved version of them. The hominid fossil and archaeological records show clearly that biological and technological innovations have typically been highly sporadic, and totally out of phase, since the invention of stone tools some 2.5 million years ago. They also confirm that this pattern applied in the arrival of modern cognition: the anatomically recognizable species Homo sapiens was well established long before any population of it began to show indications of behaving symbolically. This places the origin of symbolic thought in the realms of exaptation, whereby new structures come into existence before being recruited to new uses, and of emergence, whereby entire new levels of complexity are achieved through new combinations of attributes unremarkable in themselves. Both these phenomena involve entirely routine evolutionary processes; special as we human beings may consider ourselves, there was nothing special about the way we came into existence. Modern human cognition is a very recent acquisition; and its emergence ushered in an entirely new pattern of technological (and other behavioral) innovation, in which constant change results from the ceaseless exploration of the potential inherent in our new capacity.

Keywords

Innovation Evolutionary pattern Symbolic cognition Technological evolution Intelligence Exaptation Emergence 

Notes

Acknowledgments

I thank Nathalie Gontier for the kind invitation extended to me to contribute this additional element to a remarkable symposium publication, and two anonymous referees for comments.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of AnthropologyAmerican Museum of Natural HistoryNew YorkUSA

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